How Did AT&T Catch Verizon? A Clinic on Marketing With Big Brands

By: Felicia Savage

big brandsThe year was 2011. The iPhone 4 was newly released and Verizon had just inked a deal with Apple, making them the second mobile provider to carry the iPhone. This was a nightmare scenario for AT&T. They were starting to gain lost ground on their rival brand, but they lost their monopoly on the iPhone market. As the largest mobile provider in the nation, Verizon looked poised to bury AT&T with other second-tier providers like T-Mobile.

Fast forward to today. Not only does AT&T still sell more iPhones than Verizon, they’ve actually tied Verizon for most mobile subscribers.

How did AT&T overcome their oversized foe after losing market share on their fastest-growing product?

There are many explanations. For one, AT&T acquired Cricket Wireless while Verizon’s customer growth slowed over the past few quarters, but a large part of this may be attributed to effective marketing. Both AT&T and Verizon were offering the exact same product with very similar brands attached, but AT&T sells 10% more iPhones. This difference alone could account for AT&T’s incredible come-from-behind effort. So what did AT&T do differently?

AT&T followed these three simple steps to leverage a big brand to make their marketing more effective:

1.    Partner with the Brand

Step number one is typically the hardest, but AT&T was able to accomplish this with ease. It’s a no-brainer that your business can benefit immensely by partnering with a big brand, but doing this can be much harder than it sounds.

So how did AT&T make it look so easy?

In a world where AT&T wasn’t the largest mobile provider and didn’t have the best data coverage, how were they able to land sole rights to the iPhone? They paid attention to what the big brand needed most. In Apple’s case, they needed:

  • A stable company (4-5 mobile providers could work)
  • A global network (No one could provide besides Verizon and AT&T)
  • A partner who believed in Apple’s vision (This is where AT&T shined)

By focusing on what their competitor lacked (faith in Steve Jobs’ vision), AT&T was able to capitalize on an emotional appeal to a large brand and land a partnership. If your brand is looking to land a big-name partnership, ask these questions:

  • What problems does this brand face that we are uniquely positioned to solve?
  • What value can we add to this brand that they can’t add themselves?
  • What headache can I solve for the decision-makers in this situation?
  • What can I do to appeal to the ego of this brand?
  • What unique opportunities exist within my network that this brand can take advantage of?

If you’re able to team up, great! Even if you’re not able to partner with them, though, you can apply steps 2 and 3 to your advertising to maximize the benefit of the brand.

2.    Capture the Essence of the Brand

Look at the first ever iPhone commercials:

These ads had a very distinct flair. These are all originally from Apple, and while they mention their partner, they aren’t branded for AT&T.

As this partnership grew, however, AT&T began sharing their own messaging in the Apple style. Here’s another ad aimed at Verizon, released shortly after it was announced that Verizon would be carrying their own iPhones.

These ads were mocking lack of functionality on the Verizon network. They look and feel exactly like an Apple ad, but they actually came from Apple’s partner, AT&T.

By using the same look and feel as a big brand, AT&T made their advertising more effective, but they also grew Apple’s visibility. Both sides recognize the benefit here. The same can be said of automotive co-op advertising, for example. By branding your dealership the same way your OEM brands their cars, you give them more visibility and they will reward you for it.

3.    Add Your Own Flavor

Here’s where you get to have fun. Look at this recent Apple ad:

Now watch this AT&T ad:

Notice the similarities? They look and feel very similar, but AT&T’s has a very distinct slant. Instead of focusing on the features of the phone, they’re focusing on the features of their subscription plan. This is a brilliant move by AT&T because, while the ad feels like an Apple ad, they motivate you to make an AT&T-specific buying decision.

Seven years after we were introduced to the iPhone, it has become the most popular smartphone on the planet. This surge in business for Apple proved to be essential to AT&T leapfrogging its rival, Verizon. Since 2007, traffic on its network has doubled each year and AT&T has spent more than $115 billion building its network.

Now, you may not double your business year-over-year, but if you’re able to tap into the magic of big brands through tools like co-op advertising, you could be viewed like a visionary in your industry, too.